Reflection for Sunday – October 31, 2021

Readings: Deuteronomy 6: 2-6; Hebrews 7: 23-28; Mark 12: 28B-34
Preacher: Sr. Joan Sobala

From long hearing, most of us are familiar with Jesus’ saying,  “I have come not to destroy the Law but to fulfill it.”  Jesus identifies the meaning of his life with the full flowering of the Law.

And yet, in the Gospel of Mark, in the short space of eleven chapters, Jesus broke the Law many times and in many ways.

  • At least three times, he cured on the Sabbath.
  • He associated with the unclean and foreigners.
  • He touched the dead.
  • He accepted the company and ministry of women.
  • He allowed his disciples to pick grain and eat it on the Sabbath.
  • He ate with unclean hands and
  • He challenged the Law on divorce.

How is it that Jesus can both break the Law so clearly and claim that He has come to fulfill the Law?

One important answer to this question lies in today’s Gospel.

By the time of Jesus, the Jewish leaders had reduced religion to law. Religious practice was equated with external observance. Do this. Don’t do that. The Law in Jesus’ time contained 613 such rules that governed every facet of life. A person was judged to be religious if he or she never deviated from these rules.

So when the scribe in today’s Gospel asks Jesus which is the first of the commandments, the scribe bears the weight of the 613 prescriptions that made life so complex.

Jesus goes to the heart of the matter. He doesn’t burden people with a multiplicity of laws. Rather, he strips away the layers that obscure the truth and points to the love of God and the love of neighbor as the only indispensable law— a law by which Jesus Himself lives.

Jesus doesn’t try to predetermine the response to every situation of life, nor does He set down in law every gesture of prayer or goodness. Rather, Jesus leaves it to the human heart in touch with God to work out the particulars.

In the original prayer in Deuteronomy, which Jesus quotes, the faithful person is urged to love God with heart and soul and strength. Jesus adds the words “with all your mind.” A faithful response to God is not to be mindless or unthinking. It is not to be an automatic response.  Our thinking as well as our heart and soul must go into loving God and our neighbor.

Years ago, the distinguished Rochester criminal lawyer, Charles Crimi, wrote to me after he had appeared as a speaker at the Downtown Community Forum, which I coordinated at St. Mary’s Church. I kept his letter all these years because, in it, he thought his way through loving God and our neighbor in our times.

“It’s relatively easy,” he said, “to give weekly stipends in church, to bring in cans of food. It’s comparatively easy to keep oneself sinless so as to feel rather comfortable about making it to heaven. But when it comes to forgiving the grossest crimes, it’s a totally different story.”

Charles Crimi sets up the real tension in the question,  “What does it mean to love our neighbor?” Not the neighbor who is pleasant, but the unlovable neighbor. Can I love the person who despises me? The one who wants to destroy my career, the individual who attacks my black neighbor, the drunk who ran over my child, the person who has had an affair with my spouse?

The love required in these situations is not the love of pop songs or the love conjured up with teddy bears, hearts and flowers, although these have some value in themselves.

The love in today’s Gospel is characterized by strength, patience, courage, compassion and yes—suffering.

Do we have it within ourselves as individuals, as a community, as a nation to attempt Gospel love today?

If our life and love are to be an imitation of Jesus, I would suggest that three qualities ought to characterize that love:

  • It will be worldly, by which I mean that it will deal with the social, economic and religious concerns of our times.
  • It will care concretely for God’s people.
  • It will bear the sign of the cross.

In our honest efforts to respond to that call, we may well feel unsure about ourselves. Nonetheless, as we make our efforts to love God and our neighbor in this day and age, imperfect and tentative as those attempts may be, we need to hear Jesus say to us what he said to the scribe in similar circumstances:

 “You are not far from the Kingdom of God.”

Sr. Joan Sobala, SSJ
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